News Center

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Study probes effects of environmental chemicals on developing fetuses

Gerber grant funds Franciscan St. Francis Health neonatologist-led research

INDIANAPOLIS – Do commonly used chemicals in the environment   imprint our babies’ DNA?  Can they be linked to premature birth, birth defects and other adverse outcomes?  Can they induce -- as they do in animals -- diseases which appear later in life and are heritable across multiple generations?

That’s the focus of a study under way at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis. The research is made possible by a $295,000 grant from the Gerber Foundation to Franciscan Alliance Foundation St. Francis Health.

Paul D. Winchester, MD, medical director of neonatal intensive care unit at Franciscan St. Francis, and Michael Skinner, PhD, professor of molecular biology at the Washington State University, seek to determine if maternal exposure to these environmental chemicals may change human genes in subtle but serious ways in utero and contribute to preterm births, birth defects, reduced fetal growth, and the onset of adult diseases.

The study will also attempt to determine if the negative DNA imprinting changes seen in animals exposed to environmental contaminants are also measurable in humans.

 “If animal findings regarding epigenetic imprinting translate into humans, we expect a groundbreaking transformation in our knowledge of disease prevention and environmental risks,” said Winchester, who also is professor of clinical pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine  and widely published for his research.

While virtually all  pregnant women in the United States now test positive for the presence of insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, very little data exists related to these commonly found environmental contaminants and their impact on the DNA of developing human fetuses.

Established in 1952, the mission of the Fremont, Mich.-based Gerber Foundation is to enhance the quality of life of infants and young children in nutrition, care, and development. The primary focus of foundation grant-making is on health and nutritional issues affecting infants and young children.

Franciscan Alliance Foundation St. Francis Health is a not-for-profit, philanthropic organization established in 1995 for the purpose of raising funds in support of the programs and services provided by Franciscan St. Francis Health.